Since its establishment in 1977, International Museum Day (IMD) has been held every 18 May to celebrate museums as supremely valuable cultural and educational institutions. The objective of the day is to raise awareness that museums are not only galleries displaying important artefacts, but also means towards cultural exchange, the enrichment of knowledge, and the development of mutual understanding, cooperation and peace among peoples.
This year, the IMD and its theme of “Museums for Equality: Diversity and Inclusion” was different from usual, however, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to shutter many of the world’s cultural institutions, cutting them off from their physical admirers. As a result, many museums have migrated online, launching virtual tours, webinars, and social media campaigns in recognition of the international Day.
“It seems like a strange time to celebrate, as thousands of museums remain closed, and the uncertainty of what will happen in the coming months overwhelms our thoughts,” wrote International Council of Museums (ICOM)’s President Suay Aksoy in an open letter published on the association’s website. “Yet it is precisely now that we need to spread the message of International Museum Day.”
The IMD aims to become a rallying point for both museums and civil society, because it is not only about museums, he said, but was a celebration of every single person who makes museums the places of wonder that they are. The day is about wide-eyed schoolchildren, passionate curators, art enthusiasts, dedicated security people, and even occasional visitors.
“It is about our natural heritage and its outstanding biodiversity. It is about our common memory and the diversity that unites us in our differences,” Aksoy wrote.
Egypt like other countries all over the globe celebrated the day digitally by launching a virtual tour of one of the most famous and richest of Egypt’s house museums, the Gayer-Anderson Museum, also known as Beit Al-Kritliya, in Islamic Cairo.
This is a living example of a private Egyptian residence from the Ottoman Period. It consists of two houses that date to the 16th and 17th centuries CE that are considered as beautiful examples of the architecture of their time. The house overlooks the Ahmad Ibn Toloun Mosque, while in corner of its front garden is the mausoleum of a local saint, Sidi Haroun Al-Husseini.
Niveen Nezar, associate to the minister of tourism and antiquities for exhibition scenarios, explained that the museum consists of many rooms, each of which is known by a different name depending on its contents, such as the Winter Hall, the Damascus Hall, the Chinese Room, and the Persian Room.
The first of the two houses that constitute the museum was built by Mohamed Ibn Salem Ibn Gilmam Al-Gazzar, and it came to be known to locals as the Beit Al-Kritliya, or the House of Kritliya, because the last person to reside in it was a woman who originally came from the island of Crete, or Kriti in Arabic. Subsequently, this moniker came to be applied to both houses, before they came to be known jointly as the Museum of Beit Al-Kritliya.
The house possesses all the characteristics of a Mameluke residential building, with distinctions between the men’s public quarters (the salamlek) and the family and women’s quarters (the haramlek), the presence of reception halls, a small garden, storage areas, servants’ quarters, and an inner court, which allowed circulation and let in sunlight, and which is still equipped with a fountain.
El-Enany inspects the open air display of Sharm El-Sheikh Museum
Today, the museum is named after R G Gayer-Anderson, a physician in the British army and a great Egyptophile. In 1935, he submitted a request to the Committee for the Preservation of Arab Antiquities, in charge of Egypt’s built Islamic heritage at the time, to set up a residence in the two houses. He promised to restore them and furnish them in an Islamic style and to use them to exhibit his collection of antiquities. He also promised to return them to the government at some future point.
His request was approved, and he lived in what is now the Gayer-Anderson or Beit Al-Kritliya Museum from 1935 until 1942. To facilitate movement between the two houses, their upper floors were bridged by an arcade. In 1942, Gayer-Anderson, forced to leave Egypt due to ill-health, returned the two houses with all their antiquities and furnishings to the Egyptian government.
They were then converted into a museum named after him. He was the last private resident of the house and managed to maintain it in its original condition, adding his own private collection to it and bequeathing it as a museum for future generations to learn from and enjoy.
HISTORICAL IMPORTANCE: The house’s historic significance is not only due to its architectural design and the fact that it is among the very few monuments that have stood the test of time, unlike many neighbouring houses from the same period that collapsed or were demolished.
The importance of the house also remains in the legends affiliated to it, and these reflect local collective memory, stitched into history and creating a rich mélange of popular stories and historic events.
Gayer-Anderson, who first came to Cairo in 1906, first saw the Mamluke-style house on a tour of the Ibn Toloun Mosque. “A beautiful woman waved to me from one of the arabesque windows and invited me to take a look at the ancient house,” his memoir reads. Little did he know then that he would be the last tenant of the house before it became a museum some 29 years later.
In 1935, Nezar said, Gayer-Anderson revisited the house, then owned by the government, and managed to convince the authorities to let him stay in it until he died. When he died, he said, he would bequeath his collection of objects to the state. During his stay in the house, he befriended Suleiman Al-Kritli, the last owner, who took care of the Tomb of Sheikh Haroun, a descendant of Al-Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohamed, who is buried at the far end of the courtyard.
The house is divided into two halves, the haramlek, or family residence, mainly used by women, and the salamlek, used as a reception area and to receive guests. The house’s arabesque windows open onto a courtyard containing the famous “bat well” that is a main source of legends about the house. Gayer-Anderson made each room a place of Middle Eastern traditions, whether Turkish or Mameluke, as he was an art collector and used the house to exhibit the pieces he treasured.
Among the numerous rooms in the house is what is known as the “secret chamber” near to where the legendary well is tucked away. The well, according to legends, dates back to the time of the Prophet Noah and his Ark. One story explains that Noah’s Ark rested on the highest hill in Egypt, Mount Yashkour, where the Ibn Toloun Mosque now stands.
It says that the well is all that is left from the time of the Great Flood, hence its magical powers. Local stories also say that this hill was where Moses saw the famous burning bush mentioned in scripture. It is also where the Prophet Ibrahim was ordered by God to slaughter his son Ismail, who God then saved, replacing him by a ram, from whence comes the name of the local road the Tarik Al-Kebash, or “Road of the Ram”.
Set in an area replete with such vivid local legends, the house has its own share of stories attached to it, perhaps owing to the fact that there is said to be an underground passageway connecting it to the mosque. According to some, this is where ancient treasure is buried. A good jinn (genie) and his seven daughters live at the bottom of the well guarding the treasure, it is said, as does the great grandparent of one of the early owners of the house who hoarded money and never spent it.
Eventually, the story says, his wife threw out his savings, mistaking them for the rubbish in which he had hid them.
SHARM EL-SHEIKH MUSEUM: Meanwhile, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities also has ambitious plans to establish and renovate museums in other governorates in order to promote tourism in Egypt.
Among the most important museums that will be completed and opened next year is the Sharm El-Sheikh Museum, the second museum to be run in partnership with the private sector after the Hurghada Museum. Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled El-Enany embarked on a tour to inspect the work being done before its official inauguration recently.
Construction work began on the Sharm El-Sheikh Museum in 2006 but stopped in 2009 due to architectural problems and then the lack of a budget in the aftermath of the 2011 Revolution. Work resumed early this year with a budget of LE300 million.
Moemen Othman, head of the Museums Sector at the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), said that the museum was originally a one-storey building with several halls, but after its redesign it was divided into two large galleries on two levels.
The first is 1,200 square metres in area and displays a collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts illustrating the topic of life and the afterlife in ancient Egypt as well as the relations of the ancient Egyptians to animals. The second hall will put on show objects from Egypt’s different civilisations, as well as topics such as the ancient Silk Roads that once linked East Asia to Europe.
Among the most important artefacts, Othman said, were the Hathour Column, which will be the core of the museum, as well as a head of the Pharaoh Tuthmoses II and a collection of mummified animals.
The area outside the museum has been allocated for landscaped areas, bazaars, and restaurants and cafeterias to attract tourists to the coastal city in the evening. A centre to produce and display Sinai handicrafts will also be established. Othman said that the museum would be equipped with a state-of-the-art security system with surveillance cameras monitoring it minute-by-minute over 24 hours.
Mahmoud Mabrouk, the designer of the museum displays, said that it would provide a “light cultural meal” for tourists in its two halls. He said that pieces would be carefully selected according to the highest standards in order to reflect the way the ancient Egyptians lived thousands of years ago.
The museum would display domestic items such as beds and dining tables, he said. Jewellery and the ornaments of kings, priests, and citizens would also be displayed. Cosmetics would be shown through a collection of wigs and other items.
Mabrouk said that part of the hall would be dedicated to the afterlife through a collection of funerary furniture. A complete example of a tomb would be on show to explain to visitors the idea of the afterlife and what it represented for the ancient Egyptians.
“Wildlife and the ways the ancient Egyptians respected animals will also be on show,” Mabrouk told Al-Ahram Weekly, explaining that animal mummies discovered at the end of last year at the Saqqara Necropolis outside Cairo, such as cats, hawks, eagles, crocodiles, rats and cobras, would be on show.
He said that tourists visiting the museum would have a good idea of how the ancient Egyptians lived and how life developed through the different ages.
The second hall will include items from all the civilisations that Egypt has hosted through its long history and be called the Hall of Civilisations. It will include artefacts from the Graeco-Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Periods, in addition to civilisations that did not settle in Egypt, but passed through on the ancient Silk Roads, such as the Chinese civilisation.
Mabrouk said that a complete Roman bath would be displayed. When the Romans came to Egypt in the first century BCE, he said, there were popular baths, including steam rooms, discussion rooms, and bathtubs, and these survived into the later Islamic era.
A model of an Ottoman room will also be on show, along with a display of desert life including Bedouin tents from Sinai and Siwa.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly